Aaron J. Brown is an author and radio producer who teaches at Hibbing Community College. Years of writing about Iron Range news, history, culture and politics have culminated in his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He lives on the western Mesabi Iron Range in Itasca County with his family.

Posts about Society

The night Santa Claus wore steel-toed boots

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: December 23, 2014 - 3:16 PM

I’ve spent every Christmas Eve my entire natural life at my grandparents’ place south of Eveleth. My earliest memories of these Brown family gatherings stem from when I was the age my children are now. It’s a blessing to have such a strong tradition, but also a curse. It gets hard to tell the years apart. Some years were completely unremarkable, others punctuated by arguments. Some years relatives drank too much. Some years I drank too much. These years seem foggy. At some point the food become more important than the presents, but I can’t pinpoint that, either.

I do remember one Christmas Eve in Eveleth, about 12 years ago. There were two reasons I recall this. The first was that it was the year after LTV closed its taconite mine at Hoyt Lakes. It was the big news that year, casting a dark cloud over the holiday for people across the Iron Range. But I would have forgotten all that by now, just like all the other years in which mines closed that I have since forgotten. This year sticks out for one simple reason: It was the year Santa Claus came early.

We all know the story of Santa Claus, how he visits all the houses on Christmas Eve to deliver presents. Some people don’t believe in Santa, but we come from a family that does. My sons would gladly tell you how they heard him on the roof last year, and how they saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer nibbling on the brush near the window of their bedroom.

But we all know that Santa works at night, alone. You’re not supposed to see Santa, unless something's gone horribly wrong. And I’m afraid that one time 12 years ago something did go wrong and we saw Santa at the Browns’ Christmas Eve.

The night was going along the way it usually does. I had eaten the amount of cheese you need to eat to increase your resting heart rate without exercise. This is a lot of cheese, but not an insurmountable amount of cheese for a man of my lineage, particularly on a holiday or on any occasion in which cheese is made available at no cost to the consumer.

It was a year or two before my wife and I had our first son, so we were the sort of young professionals who mill around at family gatherings like this wondering what the future will bring. Kids. Jobs. Pressing matters of our times, not yet realizing that it’s all been done before. We've lived these lives through our ancestors, the human race. Perhaps even it’s all been done in the stars, our future coming like the ore trains along Highway 7, a train that always runs on time. Or a sleigh, for that matter.

We heard a commotion down by the split entry to my grandparents' home. Suddenly, up the stairs clomped Santa Claus. Now, contrary to reports that Santa Claus is a short, fat old elf, I can tell you that Santa Claus is very tall — 6’2” even accounting for the boots. Fat, maybe, but in a way that's pretty common for the Upper Midwest. He looked about 55 or 60. I'll let you decide if that's old.

Now, Santa had visited the grandma and grandpa's place before, many times since I was a little kid. But everyone, even the kids, knew that guy wasn't really Santa. It was my grandma's brother Tubby. Tubby used to live in the trailer next to ours on the family junkyard until he had to move out to make room for hubcaps. But this Santa wasn't anyone we knew. This was a man with a red suit, a white beard, saying HO HO HO, showing up on Christmas Eve unannounced. This *was* Santa Claus.

Santa winded his way through the house, stepping over the human limbs and beverages lining the floor of the crowded living room. He wiggled his workman’s frame into the dining room where my grandfather keeps court in a custom-order chair at the end of the table. Santa leaned over to the patriarch of my family, his hair is even whiter than Santa’s. Whispered words exchanged. In a moment he was Ho-Ho-Hoeing his way out the way he came.

Grandpa grinned. “He’s looking for Thunderbird Road.”

Directions. Santa was lost on his way to a gig. On his way out my grandma complimented his rough, beaten footwear, “Nice boots, Santa!”

“Courtesy of LTV Steel,” he said, letting out a laugh that made his belly shake like the ball drum in a concentrator plant.

That’s when Santa Claus piled into his four-door domestic compact (with eight reindeerpower under the hood), motoring off to his next stop -- only to return that very night, right on time, as all the boys and girls of the Iron Range dreamed of better times.

On the Iron Range, Race and Healing

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: December 1, 2014 - 7:08 PM

Race is one of the main variables of American life. This fact was written directly into our flawed Constitution more than two centuries ago, a truth demanding hard reckoning ever since.

Sometimes it can be comfortable to pretend that race isn't one of the main variables of life here in Northern Minnesota, however. This is an illusion forged from driving Native Americans off the iron formation and a collective cultural decision 70 years ago to agree that Irish, Finns and bohunks were OK now (and that bohunk wasn't an ethnic slur anymore, apparently). Mostly this occurred because everyone started intermarrying and having Irish-Swede, Slovenian-Norwegian, and Finn-German babies. Now we wear snow bibs in the winter and forget the names of our immigrant ancestors who once saw each other as foreign.

Since 97 percent of the population was now "white," there was no "race problem." Rather, that became the commonly held belief by many on the Iron Range. Sure, there are Native Americans, but as I've written before, many of us on the Iron Range were raised to believe that local Ojibwa people had their own reservations and one shouldn't trouble oneself worrying about the fact that they exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Periodic ugly racial disputes were rare enough to be ignored ... by white people.

Honest reality: Race is an issue here, certainly insofar as white/native relations go, but beyond that as well. Persistent demographic changes in American life are happening here, too. And the results are part of the same troubling story found in Ferguson, Missouri.

This Sunday, Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin followed up on an earlier column of his about a former Greenway student who committed suicide after a long period of sustained racially-motivated harassment. (I quoted that column in my piece about mental illness at that time). Tevlin gained access to official statements about the life and death of Isaiah Gatimu, and they are both troubling and sadly familiar to anyone who is or has known someone of a minority race or mixed race on the Iron Range.

It's not easy to be different in a small town. It's particularly difficult to be different on the Iron Range, where a generational code of fraternity and isolationism requires native birth for true acceptance in some social circles. And when the differences are visible, such as they are with race or gender, that becomes a persistent challenge to overcome. Just ask the women who were harassed at the Eveleth Mines. Or the children of more recent non-European immigrants. Or the increasing number of mixed race children like Isaiah who are being raised on the Iron Range, visible evidence of changing times so easy for the old guard to single out.

I have viewed my social media feeds with a preemptive cringe lately. I deal mostly with white people who deal mostly with other white people. So when the riots broke in Ferguson, ugliness of many varieties permeated both the TV screen and my social circles. False equivalencies, generalizations, and a general sense of racial superiority became suddenly OK to share in mixed company.

What struck me as funny about seeing an angry rant about the inappropriateness of rioting African American young people is how the only real demographic difference between the ranter and the rioter is the color of their skin. But the difference of life experience is vast. If some of the young men I know who shared racist posts were followed by police, pulled over and searched randomly and constantly, pushed, shunned and occasionally shot ... well, they'd be rioters, too. Their social class is almost enough to make them riot now. Almost. I think I can understand why someone would get so angry that they'd burn a police car, or break windows. Or steal. Because who cares, right? Who cares about a system that doesn't care about you?

That's where the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., become so important. Yes, he did say "Riots are the language of the unheard," not in prescribing riots, but decrying the social condition that causes them. Robberies can be random crimes. Murders can be random crimes. For that matter, even wire fraud can be random. But riots don't happen randomly. Riots also don't solve anything, which is what King would go on to preach. Only peaceful, righteous protest can succeed, but that does not mean such demonstrations are warm, comfortable or fitting the expectations of the majority.

At the peak of the national media blitz on Ferguson, this letter appeared in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. Written by former GOP legislative candidate and local township official Marv Ott, the piece laments the decay of some remembered age of virtuosity in politics, but names only African American Democrats for blame in its demise. The first paragraph is abject racism, whether the writer intended it or not. This is not an isolated case. The coffee klatches. The gas stations. Facebook. At best, just ignorance. At worst, willful ignorance.

There isn't much that empathy can't cure. As I teach in class, empathy isn't the same as sympathy. Sympathy means "sucks to be you." And I think it's clear to most people that it does suck to be black in St. Louis right now, and also on the Iron Range. It sucks to be any kind of person who stands out in any way. Why is that necessary? Forced homogeny is no longer a social virtue. Those days are gone, and good riddance.

The specter of police violence and lawlessness, the riots in Ferguson, the protests around the nation, these are all part of a sickness in this country. So, too, was the harassment and death of Isaiah Gatimu on the Iron Range.

The worst assumption anyone can make is that this sickness, and the need for redemptive healing, does not apply to each of us equally -- no matter where we live. As the popular prayer of St. Frances states clearly: Seek first to understand. The rest will come.

I love my people and my place in Northern Minnesota. I love it as it is, and as it could be. We deny ourselves hope if we close our minds to conversations like this.

The Iron Ranger who would not hunt

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: November 7, 2014 - 11:41 AM

I live in northern Minnesota. I’ve lived here all my life. I don't hunt.

Yes, I eat meat. And the reason I don't hunt has nothing to do with a felony preventing me from owning or transporting weapons. This, after all, is the most socially acceptable reason any able bodied man between ages 11 and 97 wouldn't be out in the woods this morning looking for deer to shoot. People here understand probation; it might even garner you some sympathy. People don't know what to do with the guy who doesn't hunt on purpose.

"You hunt?" it starts.

"Nope," I say.

"Hmmf."

This is the sound that triggers my defensiveness. There is judgment in that wordless, amorphous sound.

"Nah, I figure I can afford hamburger. No reason to tromp out in the cold."

"Hmmf." (A repetition of the first sound indicating this is not an acceptable answer).

"My family hunts," I continue. "They've got a shack up by Cook. Three generations. I take my boys up there a few times a year to ride the trails, hang out with grandpa."

If I'm lucky this conversation ends shortly with the understanding that I really am from here; I just don't hunt for some reason. Maybe I’m just embarrassed about being on probation or am impaired in some way not visible from the outside. As long as I don’t mention having a newspaper column to write or anything involving the internet I still have an outside chance at begrudging social acceptance.

See, it's not just about the sport of harvesting trophies and venison from the woods. The rifle deer hunting season is a 16-day venerated cultural tradition, usually consciously veering into the realm of tractor pulls and pit parties by the second weekend.

Hunting season on the Mesabi Iron Range is 24 percent eating; 12 percent sauna; 25 percent riding ATVs; 20 percent riding trucks out to pull ATVs out of the mud; 15 percent driving bigger trucks out to pull that truck out of the same mud; 37 percent driving whatever's left to town to buy all the parts that broke in this process; 4 percent in the outhouse; and 41 percent standing around a fire that slowly consumes wood and various things that are not wood. The remaining time is spent actually hunting deer. That amount varies. I forgot drinking. That’s in there, too.

And no, these numbers don’t add up because what is this, math class? We ain’t building a watch here. Cell phones don’t work up there. Don’t call. See you Monday. Or Tuesday. Whatever.

I once met a guy whose family still lived off the deer hunt; they ate venison year round on their working dairy farm. That’s getting to be quiet rare. Most hunters enjoy the season for the sport, the socialization and the simple act of getting away from a workaday world. A not insignificant number of hunters like the evaporation of social norms that occurs at the hunting shack. For men in this stoic Iron Range society, hunting season might be the only time of year to impart any concept of value to the next generation.

In other words, if you're a guy, you have to go to deer camp. Otherwise, it’s a long year of harrumphing over the Vikings, politics and weather between real conversations.

Indeed, I don’t hunt. It’s true. I could. I still don’t. I just like to observe nature and leave it alone. I don’t want to field dress a deer. When someone hands me venison jerky I’ll eat it and pretend to like it, but I just don’t care. I have a blog to maintain. Hey, someone’s got to edit this audio file on my iMac.

I just … OK, fine.

I’m on probation.

I beat up a guy in a bar. That’s why. It’s just easier that way.

Northern Minnesota finally has stake in Emmys fight

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: July 11, 2014 - 10:50 AM

Not since Kevin McHale was snubbed for his groundbreaking guest role on "Cheers" have Northern Minnesotans had this much interest in the outcome of the Emmys. 

The Northern Minnesota-based FX drama "Fargo," inspired by the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, earned 18 Emmy nominations in the mini-series category yesterday, including nods for the four actors who portrayed the main roles. I filed episode-by-episode reviews of "Fargo" from my unique perch here in the real Northern Minnesota.

I started watching the show with a healthy dose of skepticism but quickly came around when the dramatic craftsmanship of Noah Hawley and his team became apparent. What began as an opportunity to make jokes about regional continuity errors quickly became a well-read feature of my blog, as fans gathered to talk about the latest episodes and as questions about Bemidji, Duluth and other places depicted in "Fargo."

"Fargo" was not a traditional style TV drama. It was designed as a "one off," a 10-episode run that would end definitively after a single season. That's how they got so many relatively big stars to do roles both big and small. But Hawley said that he would be open to doing another, similar season, albeit with all new characters and probably in an all new venue. He's described his vision as being a "true crime of the Midwest" series that would stay fresh by leaping through time and location. ("True Crime" being part of the irony here; despite the disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, "Fargo" is entirely fictional).

So there's no guarantee that the next show would be based in Northern Minnesota, but it would probably be fairly nearby if it weren't.  Though it's not official yet, sources are saying a new second season of "Fargo" is likely. But some of the first season's stars seem resigned to the fact that they won't be a part of the new one.

Turning back to the Emmy's for a moment, the 18 nominations for "Fargo" all come in the "Best Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special" category. This was a strategic move by FX, as the show would also have been eligible to be entered in the Best Drama category (where HBO's similarly-formatted "True Detective" ended up). But the move did allow all of the show's deserving people to be nominated and may set it up for a historic sweep if Emmy voters like the show as much as critics did.

Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo) and Martin Freeman (Lester Nygaard) were both nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special." In a move that I question, Allison Tolman (Molly Soverson) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the miniseries category. I had long considered her a leading actress, the protagonist that counterbalanced the evil of Thornton and Freeman's characters. So it goes. Colin Hanks (Gus Grimely) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this category, meaning all four of the "main" characters were nominated.

I would have liked to see some of the out standing guest actors get nominated for this series -- Russell Harvard, Adam Goldberg, Bob Odenkirk -- but none of them got the call.

Noah Hawley was nominated for writing, where he is very deserving, and two directors were nominated for different episodes: Adam Bernstein for "The Crocodile's Dilemma" and Colin Bucksey for "Buridan's Ass." My personal feeling is that "Buridan's Ass" is the best episode in the whole series, its only fault being that it was so much better than the others that the finale had a hard time catching up to the expectations. So that's my favorite.

So we'll see what happens on Monday, Aug. 25 when the Emmy's awards ceremony is held in Los Angeles. Then we will find out if "Fargo" is coming back, and "where" it will happen. My vote is for the Iron Range. Noah! Call me!

Oh, the things you'll see at an Iron Range Fourth of July

Posted by: Aaron Brown Updated: July 3, 2014 - 9:52 PM
The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

Most every little hamlet in Minnesota claims some special Fourth of July tradition. After all, Minnesota was born in the patriotic fervor preceding the Civil War, swaddled in the stars and stripes and raised to feed, build and Bob Dylan-ize America. A territory founded on the cornerstone of community (and large, powerful railroads), the Fourth of July is a special time in the North Star State.

But this time of year always reminds me of the special traditions that exist in my homeland: Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. This mining region in northern St. Louis and Itasca counties was sacred Ojibwa land before becoming home to immigrants from 43 nations on Earth. About the only thing everyone shared was the desire to have fun and demonstrate patriotism in the middle of the summer. So, sure, we do up the Independence Day parades and fireworks as well as anyone (though the locals would say that's an understatement). But the entire Iron Range Fourth of July experience? Can't be beat. It is a wholly unique cultural phenomenon.

Every year at my blog I detail the parades, street dances and fireworks that highlight the Iron Range Fourth of July. For many, especially those who only make one trip "home" from someplace else, these events are the apex of summer.

There's a flip side, though. These Iron Range expatriates returning to their roots invariably bring new people with them. City people. Farm people. People from other states or even other countries. These new husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends are told precious little about what they will really see until they get here. As such, today I present the following …

Things You Will See at Your First Iron Range 4th of July

  • Everyone Your Loved One Ever Knew You know how your boyfriend/girlfriend told you about their first kiss, that jerk in high school, or that neighbor who carries around a bag of fingernail clippings? You’re going to meet them now. They are, more or less, right where he/she left them. And they have names: Jake, Bobby, Suzie, Mary, Tyler, Madison, Tiffany, Jennifer, Lindsay, Lindsey, Lyndsy, Lindsey P., Other Jake. Don’t forget these names, because one or two of them will be in a sleeping bag in your car tomorrow morning.
  • People Drinking More Than They Should In Places They Shouldn’t We have these things called “street dances” on the Iron Range during the Fourth of July and several other festive weekends throughout the summer. You will have to squint pretty hard to find any dancing, though. These are really just elaborate excuses to close the main streets of Iron Range towns and drink in public. Police spend the entire year planning how to hold down the number of fights. A good year is one where people don’t refer to the fights as a “melee” in the newspaper.
  • The Old “This” is Now the New “That” That place where your new husband or wife used to eat chicken? It became a liquor store when he/she was a child. Now it’s a clinic.
  • People Using Hair, Animals or Clothing to Express Social Disorder Whether it’s the lady with a ferret in her shirt, they guy with a bone through his nose or the lady with the skunk stripe down the middle of her head, you’re going to see people who appear in public just once throughout the year. It’s not clear how they support themselves the rest of the time. One theory is that they derive energy from glow sticks and cigarette smoke.
  • Clown Bands But, wait. Clowns aren’t known for playing music (true). Clowns aren’t supposed to be drunk (true). Dressing in drag isn’t the same thing as being a clown (true). These paradoxes are all part of the appeal of the Eveleth Clown Band and others like it. Membership in the band is nebulous. Leadership is unclear. The tradition stretches back past Watergate. The quality of the music is tied to an exponent based on the distance of the clown band from a working bar. The quality of the female impersonation is getting better with new technology. One gets a raw, Mardi Gras feeling from Iron Range clown bands. Something is being let loose here, and it’s OK so long as no one ever, EVER talks about it.
  • Cruising As One People People often forget that the Iron Range is one distinct region, much like a mid-sized regional city. The only catch is that “da’ Raynch” is organized as a string of small towns along a 130-mile stretch of iron in the middle of the woods. On the Fourth of July, the parochial borders that keep the towns apart disintegrate and roving groups of people intersperse the towns. It’s not unusual to plan a night around two parades, three street dances (and one, maybe two fights).
  • Actual Patriotism Never mind the nationalism of some cable news shows or jingoistic bumper stickers one might see in the parking lot, the patriotism of the Iron Range on Fourth of July is real. This region showed record enlistments in all the major American wars since immigrants started arriving 100 years ago. As a people, these new Americans wanted to show everyone they cared about their new country and would serve it to the highest degree possible. Iron Range steel quite literally built America. Despite the economic roller coaster of recent decades, most Iron Range families will tell you of an immigrant grandparent or great-grandparent who saw an impossible dream come true in the United States of America. That truly is cause for celebration.

What are your Iron Range Fourth of July stories?

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